‘Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem’
– Phil Donahue
When I was 12 my mother and I moved from the beautiful 100 acre farm we were renting in the gorgeous volcanic mountainous area of Maleny in subtropical Qld, to be near her father in Sydney, a retired university astronomy lecturer. Soon after we arrived she found us another place to live in Mosman, a family home, well more an old mansion, owned and shared with us for a time, by a young woman and her baby girl.
This was how I first met Shane, the stunning daughter of two world renowned authors, Charmian Clift (author and columnist in The Australian) and George Johnston (author of My Brother Jack and other books).
Shane had lived through enormous and multiple tragedies – her famous mother Charm had very recently committed suicide, her beloved father had died of TB, and then her elder brother Martin also suicided.
Shane was tender and loving with me in every way, and each day after school minutes felt like hours as I awaited the sound of her homecoming from work – her husky voice, her hands scruffling through my hair, and her warm embrace.
I fell in love with her with every inch of my being. And she with me, although ten years older. But Shane and my mother didn’t get on at all, the jealousy, hatred and constant arguments were on the menu each and every day. So after almost a year of these fierce battles, we had to move out when Shane announced she hated my mother as much as she hated her own mother, despite our mutual adoration of eachother.
This was not enough to save the situation, sadly.
Moving out was one of the worst days of my life and at 14, I felt I had no control over where I really wanted to be. My mother was a violent drunk and her use of pills terrifying, resulting in hospitalisations for a number of apparent suicide attempts using a cocktail of prescription medications
Shane also let me know a number of times she was convinced her own fate was also to be suicide, as a kind of terrible family inheritance, with no way out of it. My blood ran ice cold in my veins when she said this, with a feeling of the world dropping out from under my feet and nothing to hold.
With no way to make her stay – the person I loved the most in the world and a love that could go nowhere, I felt unbearably helpless to stop her self prophesied trajectory, even then foreseeing unspeakable tragedy approaching my young world.
My mother and I moved out, and my younger brother Luc came home to us from an ill-fated attempt to live with his own father. We moved into a small flat behind a shop in Cremorne as Shane also finally left her family home, which held so many deeply painful memories of her broken family, to move to Petersham
After we parted ways I called on her on a number of occasions to rescue me from my mother’s extreme drunken violence – as she systematically smashed all the windows and with no food in the cupboards for days on end, Shane would race up in her red Alfa Romeo and take me to her home for days until things quietened down with my mother
I’d also fallen in love with dancing, and I remember the day we finally took our dance class to perform in St Leonards Park on stage. For some reason I had a very strong feeling to call Shane, and went to a red phone box to call her and check in. We spoke briefly. Something felt strange, I was worried and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I went home and as it was my 15th birthday, we were having a little party at home. The phone rang. Shane’s closest friend Gabriella, let me know Shane had in fact committed suicide on this very day. Again my blood turned to ice in my veins, and I felt I was hearing things incorrectly, I couldn’t believe what I’d been told.
She had gassed herself whilst taking sleeping pills.
My life was never the same after this day. My heart was utterly broken and my mind seemed quite numb for a time. I stopped dancing for a long time. My love of writing, drawing and dancing all died with her, for many years.
Grief holds us and wants us to travel alone, for a time. The pain of grief is not purely emotional but also visceral, at times you feel it travelling like ice cold glass through your veins. Bringing up any old pain you’ve put to the side, along with the mountain of pain you’re already feeling, like iron chips to a magnet. It all comes in like a howling wind that cannot be escaped.
Now that I’ve lived through, and survived, many more tragedies and come to a place of some kind of peace in my life, I look back. I understand Shanes’ reasons for leaving. And I imagine what she could have become if she had stayed.
At the time she died she was working for a cutting-edge magazine and cut a fine figure herself. Brought up on an idyllic Greek island, Hydra, in an extremely bohemian and artistic family, she was wild and rough-edged, fascinating and fiery. She also left behind a beautiful little baby girl called Rebecca
This was one tragic family. As was mine. But theirs just kept killing itself off. Artists, dreamers, amazing people. Their home had been filled with famous and fascinating actors and artists, and they wrote incessantly, charming the Australian and global public with their well-crafted books and tales.
Suicide is never the answer. It only leaves questions.
And there is another answer.
But in those days there weren’t the resources we have now, for dealing with the terrible pain and confusion she was going through. She had experienced multiple recent deaths of people she loved with her entire heart and soul. Shane did not have the resilience or the knowhow or the support to understand any other way to deal with what she felt was endless unbearable pain. No light ahead in an endless tunnel. That’s how she saw it.
You see – now I know – pain does end. Time does heal. Life does go on. But back then the knowledge and counsellors weren’t around to hold the space for those suffering and in pain. It was medicated and shoved to the side, with the hope of the medical system that sleeping through the pain and numbing it would end it.
It didn’t. It only made it worse and gave her the wherewithal to finally end herself.
To this day I really don’t like alcohol; and prescription drugs and I do not see eye to eye . I feel utterly blessed to have known beautiful Shane, but her death at her own hands was totally crushing. I can’t even imagine how her baby girl felt, losing her beloved mummy. The fallout of such a desperate way of leaving affects many, I wonder if she realised. I know she knows now.
You ask if I then had issues around suicide, having been brought up in such tumult, abuse, chaos and violence.
The answer is yes.
I spent ten years of my early adult life waking up loving my life and simultaneously, daily, fighting a strangely powerful urge to kill myself. For at least ten years. I also took myself to therapy to help me with this. And the truth is, I did finally attempt suicide myself.
This was in a week where not only did a very difficult relationship end, my beloved brother Lucas finally died after his horrendous decade long battle with HIVAIDS.
Not a good week. Understatement.
The pain was like a cloud rising in my mind. I’d been sleeping badly on top of commuting to Sydney for work – an over 4 hour drive. A doctor gave me a bottle of sleeping pills (for the first and last time in my life). I just impulsively took all the sleeping pills and awoke the next day in hospital with my stomach pumped and feeling awful.
My very young son had found me on the floor and having just been trained at the local youth centre in how to deal with such things, he immediately called the ambulance. I was released the next day after a psychiatric evaluation where they understood it was one off thing, and they could see I was extremely rueful and regretful about having done such a thing.
My son carried great anger about this toward me for years.
How awful to have found his mother on the floor next to her bed, unconscious and possibly dying of an overdose. I vowed to him to NEVER do such a thing again, never to put him through such a thing again.
Having done it once anyway, I was totally cured. I never wanted to go there again. It wasn’t the answer.
And my insight was that often people attempt suicide because they feel they cannot see any way forward through some incredibly difficult times in their life, or the pain they’re going through seems unbearable.
But often all that’s needed is someone warm, loving and understanding to talk to, some ideas shared about how to move forward from a seemingly very stuck place, and the knowledge and foresight that no pain lasts forever.
It’s these little things. That can save a life.
I now have a university degree and many years experience counselling for those experiencing trauma, spiritual crisis and suicidality.
That’s me. I’m here for you.
So when you’re in that place where you feel like choose stay or choose go. Choose stay. Also choose go. Go as in go forward. Keep moving forward. Keep choosing to live your life. And know you are very loved
© Julie Cairnes 2018
Photo: Shane (at bottom left ) with family – Martin, Charmian, George and Jason
If you are thinking about suicide or experiencing a personal crisis help is available.
No one needs to face their problems alone.
Call 000 (Emergency Services) if life is in danger.
Support is available, for those who may be distressed-
by phoning Lifeline 13 11 14;
beyondblue 1300 224 636;
Kids Helpline 1800 551 800;
Mensline 1300 789 978.
“I thought no one could help me and I felt so desperate, but talking to someone was the first step to getting my life back.” (Lifeline caller)